Doom Bar.  Where did it come from all of a sudden?  Sharp’s Brewery isn’t 20 years old yet their flagship brand, named after a sandy marine ramp, that squelches around the low tide mark and is generally frequented by sea molluscs, crustaceans, kelp and assorted ships’ keels, is one of the UK’s fastest growing cask ales.  Fascinating.  And what makes it fascinating is that this is a genuine brand – it hasn’t earned its success as a function of a strong tied estate which gives a beer a springboard forward, gets it noticed; and it isn’t over-marketed. I mean, take the badge on the beer engine. It’s not exactly a design classic is it?    Simple, punchy, sure…but superlative design, no.  Then there’s the beer – purist or not, put a cask ale in a clear bottle and whether you like it or not, you’re supping on stoat¹ before you know it. And frankly, it isn’t a bad beer; equally it isn’t great, it does what it was designed to do: sit in the middle of the market and appeal to most.

doombarSo all this got me pondering on how brands get created.  Because despite CAMRA’s claims to the contrary, it isn’t marketing money. Oh sure, it helps, don’t get me wrong, and certainly, you would be utterly slack jawed if you knew how much money breweries (and not just the ‘big’ ones – let’s not fall into that trap) throw at winning and keeping distribution² (ie the stuff that we, as drinkers, don’t see).  And yes, it buys a nice font, and a few glasses for us to purloin, but there’s obviously much more to it than that.  Think of the brands that are spending big today: not that many. And think of the brands who have spent big until recently but just can’t stem the decline: Tetley’s, Boddington’s for example.  Broadly speaking, it seems that advertising money keeps you there, but it doesn’t get you there. More often than not in fact, it seems to be that the main audience is the Tesco or Morrisons Beer Buyer: ‘Look!’, the advertising says, ‘my owner is serious about me. List me, please!’

None of this explains Doom Bar that’s for sure.  Their approach has been to PR the hell out of their brewer, Stuart Howe, allowing him free rein, and slowly build from their heartland, out. And my, they’ve done this relentlessly and ‘executed’, as the Americans would say, superbly. Good for them.  But arguably, what they have done is no different to a vast array of other great brands, that have much more varied degrees of success. Take one example: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – it’s been kicking around for yonks compared with Doom Bar, but it sells nowhere the near hundreds of thousands of barrels Doom Bar sells a year…and is, if you’ll forgive my personal taste, a vastly superior beer.

It’s tempting to deconstruct the inputs of the brand. The stuff it’s doing and gets to market. It’s glassware. It’s assorted ephemera – drip mats and all that.  Even the pubs it’s sold in. The myths and legends that emanate from its PR team. But I don’t think it’s that. My theory is this: it’s groupthink, or clearly in this case, groupdrink.

Go with me on this. I run lots of research with consumers across all sorts of different types of products – dairy, coffee, tea, soft drinks, banking, snacks – you name it.  And one of the biggest issues I contend with is groupthink. The tendency for humans, when they get together or socialise to adopt collective behaviour, views, opinions and attitudes. It’s remarkable because it takes no time at all – literally minutes.  It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics in a group: here are total strangers – never met before, unlikely to ever meet again. Yet within minutes they are watching how their peers in the situation are reacting; what they are saying and how they are saying it. It’s an innate human trait – more than that, a desire to fit in.  All sorts of tricks are attempted to avoid it- typically, asking for individual, written responses, done in silence before the group start discussing.  Of course, there’s a huge amount of difference in opinion when you do this, but again, within minutes, the lifelines are being thrown out: ‘Well, when I first saw it (lets say it’s an idea for a new beer) I liked it, it sounded really appetising. But now I’ve heard what this lady has said, I’ve changed my mind’.  There’s lots of scientific study in this area and it confirms what you don’t want to hear: I’m afraid, just like in The Life of Brian, you’re not an individual.  Human tendency is actually to conform. And ultimately, be conservative.

So the question is: how do you get your brand to the trigger point? To that point of reputation where a few people, just a few, are actively drinking and recommending your brand.  And in a situation where the context is positive.  This for me, is the happy serendipity that faced Sharps. Wittingly or unwittingly I’m unsure, but they chose to build their brand out of Cornwall, and specifically that part that has a lower concentration of Cornish, and a higher (albeit seasonal) concentration of tourists.  Tourists with a predeliction to come back year in year out; to bring their children and pass on that gene. To pop down for long weekends whenever they can, and if fortunate enough, buy a second home down there.  To sail in the Camel Estuary and pop over to one of Rick Stein’s bistros for a spot of supper. This is the emotional context that comes washing ashore with Doom Bar. And before you know, you unknowingly want to fit in, so you order a pint…

It can be replicated too. Sure, not exactly (albeit  Adnams has the wind in its sails for a similar reason), but building positive context and association around your brand is doable. Take Brew Dog; unless you live in Pitlochry, it’s not exactly on your door step, but their positive context is the challenger, maverick attitude.  ‘If you think this, come to me’ it says. And Black Sheep – the name says so much; the Yorkshire values; the visual portrayal:  a small Stone cottage just in view between the wooded interlocking ridges of the Dales.  It’s this mental image, this mindset that we really buy into. And that’s what Doom Bar have got so right. And why we all want to drink what he’s drinking.


²Put it this way, UK Volleyball wouldn’t be experiencing any funding problems through to, oooh, let’s say the 2092 Olympic Games. They’re in Ulaanbataar by the way, order your Mosquito Spray today.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

Author: David Preston

Brand expert; beer enthusiast; outdoorsman; fell walker; writer; eclectic observer; pun lover

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